Heart at Ease | 10 . 16 . 18


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A Foundational Heart Practice: Brahmaviharas

– Ajahn Amaro

THE BRAHMAVIHARAS ARE THE QUALITIES of loving-kindness, com- passion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. What is often not sufficiently emphasized is that the brahmaviharas are fundamental to the Buddha’s teaching and practice. I shall begin with the chant called The Suffusion of the Divine Abidings. I find this chant very beautiful. It is the most frequent form in which the brahmaviharas are mentioned in the discourses of the Buddha. Here is the Divine Abidings chant:

I will abide pervading one quarter with a mind imbued with loving-kindness; likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth; so above and below, around and everywhere; and to all as to myself. I will abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving-kindness; abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility, and without ill will.

The chant continues using the same words with the other three qualities:

I will abide pervading one quarter with a mind imbued with compassion…equanimity…gladness…

Last February I was asked to be the spiritual advisor to a Thai man who was to be executed at San Quentin, and I spent the last few days until his death with him. He touched many people and had many visitors, but in the capacity of spiritual advisor, I was the only person allowed to be with him in the last six hours of his life. So some of his friends asked me what they should be doing in those final hours to help Jay as well as themselves. I asked them to chant this Divine Abidings chant. That’s what they did during the final hours of Jay’s life, sending forth these thoughts of loving-kindness, compassion, gladness, and equanimity. They are pow- erful emotions to evoke at a time when one could be stuck in anger, regret,andself-pity.Itisveryempoweringtobeabletobringforththese qualities of the heart, to turn the mind away from negativity towards that which is wholesome and positive.

Cultivating the brahmaviharas means bringing these qualities (metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha) into consciousness. It is like exercising muscles that have not been used. As you develop these qualities, you have to consider whether your mind is getting clearer or more confused.The correct practice of the brahmaviharas always leads to increased clarity and joy. That is the nature of these qualities of mind.

The whole point of the Buddha’s teachings is to cultivate mental qualities in order to gain happiness of mind. And the brahmaviharas—a prime source for creating happiness—can thus lay the foundation for the entire practice. Most of the terms the Buddha uses regarding the devel- oping of practice are those that describe states of well being.We see this in a sequence he sets out to illustrate the development of the mind.

Anavajjasukha is the state of mind resulting from abiding by the moral precepts—the happiness of blamelessness or harmlessness, the happiness of non-remorse.

Abhyasekhasukha is the happiness that ensues from training in sense restraint—the composure one finds when one is not bent on gratification or excitement of the senses.

Pamojja means the delight that results from being free of the five hin- drances that hinder meditation (sensual desire, ill will, sleepiness or drowsiness, restlessness, and skeptical doubt). Pamojja also refers to the happiness that meditative states of tranquility can bring—an unalloyed kind of happiness. It also includes the delight that arises from skilful reflection on the true nature of things. Pamojja leads to piti (joy). Piti leads to passadhi (the state of tranquility).When there is tranquility, sukha (happiness) arises, and because of sukha, samadhi arises. Samadhi is the firm meditative state of mind.The Buddha says in many discourses that the happy mind is easily concentrated.

We see that happiness brings about samadhi, whereas usually we ap- proach it the other way round.We often think,“If only I could get my meditation together, then I would be happy,” whereas it should be:“How do I gain true happiness so that my heart could be at ease?” It is a very important truth that the Buddha points to in this sequence of shades of happiness culminating in samadhi.

The result of samadhi is summed up in the recurring phrase “seeing things as they truly are.”This is a description of a mental state where the mind steps back from the sense of self. This state prepares the mind to be truly still and unshakeable.When that happens, the mind moves into nibbida. Sometimes this word is translated as boredom or disgust or re- vulsion, but that does not really get it. It means a cooling of the heart and turning away from things, leading to vimutti (freedom). Happiness plays a great role in the development of the whole sequence, and the brahmaviharas, which generate happiness, can serve as a powerful foundation for one’s practice.

The qualities of happiness and joy are necessary for mental development.This is seen in many aspects of the Buddha’s teaching.The Buddha very explicitly uses the Four Noble Truths as a tool. Over and over again he says, “I teach only two things, suffering and the cessation of suffering.” Some could say this is a miserable teaching, dwelling on suffering. But when you investigate the teaching, you see why the Buddha sets it out like that. Suffering is a very tangible quality. We can investigate it. It is some- thing that we know and do not want. The whole range of sentient exis- tence is subject to suffering, and the wish to escape from it is universal.

Many positive qualities are brought into being and are involved when one is engaged in cultivating the boundless qualities of the brahmaviharas. They lead to a sense of ease, security, and fearlessness. The Pali word for fearlessness is abhaya. In Thai, it also has the connotation of forgiveness. Developing the brahmaviharas engenders forgiveness, particularly in the practice of loving-kindness and compassion. To open one’s heart to these qualities, one needs to be forgiving. The holding of past grievances—the constant refrain of “he did this; she did that; I did this; I can’t forgive myself ”—is swept away. There is no room in the divine abodes for hold- ing grudges and enmity towards oneself or others.

Generosity, or dana, is another natural result of the desire to promote happiness and alleviate suffering.Three kinds of dana are mentioned: the givingofmaterialthingssuchasfoodormoney,thegivingofDhamma, and the giving of forgiveness or fearlessness. Often we do not pay much

attention to the little things, such as our perceptions of ourselves and others.We have to learn to really forgive so as to open our hearts to these boundless qualities.

For instance, during that experience I had with Jay Siripongs, I asked him if there was still anybody he had not forgiven.This was during the last six hours leading up to the execution.We had spent the previous four and one-half hours or so talking, chanting, meditating, laughing, and generally having a buoyant time. Jay paused for a while and quietly said,“I don’t think I’ve quite forgiven myself.” That’s not just him. All of us are in that position. So it is very important to bring up into consciousness areas where we have not forgiven ourselves and where we have thus created limitations and constraints for ourselves.


Creatures of a day, 

what is anyone?

 What are they not?

We are but a dream of a shadow.

Yet when there comes as a gift of heaven

a gleam of sunshine, 

there rests upon the heart a radiant light

and, ahh,

a gentle life.

– Pindar (518-438 BCE)

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